Japan Trip – Week Seven – Kyoto


The first week after the camp was something a little different, and also very tiring, and although I enjoyed visiting some interesting places, such as Goryokaku, Zentsuji, Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Matsuyama-jo, the reality was that I found the constant hopping from place to place quite exhausting. If anything, I never truly felt that I had given myself enough time to explore the cities I visited, and had barely even scratched the surface, instead focussing on individual buildings, of sights to visit, rather than the cities themselves. The last two weeks of my trip represented something a little different though, as I would be staying in Kyoto for the entire time. This gave me the opportunity to explore the city, and also reflect on its place within Japan as a country, and Japanese culture. Perhaps more than any other city I can think of, Kyoto still remains utterly central to the Japanese national image, and exists as a central repository for Japanese culture, tradition, and history. Indeed, the sheer number of shrines, temples, and other historical buildings makes Kyoto a fascinating place to explore, even if you will likely only scratch the surface.

I had decided to stay in a small Ryokan that was a mere fifteen minutes’ walk from Kyoto Station, and yet, felt like you were in a small town. The roads were all small, with a stream running through the centre of area, and numerous wooden and tiled buildings sitting next to more modern houses, and small offices. In fact, this is one aspect of Kyoto which becomes immediately obvious when you start to wander off the main thoroughfares, it is an eclectic mix of modern and old – tall buildings with modern shop fronts can give way to narrow roads of small communities consisting of older wooden houses in an instant. Such contrast was fascinating, and demonstrates how Kyoto has modernised as a city, without ever fully leaving behind a historical past that has come to play an essential role in its identity. There is a clear pride in the role of Kyoto as Japan’s social and cultural capital, a city full of shrines, gardens, and reminders of the countries cultural heritage.


In fact, there is so much to do and see it can be easy to get overwhelmed, something I discovered on my first day in the city when I simply didn’t know what to do or see first, something I’m sure most visitors to the city must feel. Furthermore, given the heat and humidity of summer in Kyoto (usually around the mid 30s, with high humidity, so feeling much hotter), I had decided to visit a small number of places, and just take my time, rather than trying to rush from place to place. On this first day I planned to visit Tenryu-ji, and Saiho-ji (or at least try to visit Saiho-ji, which turned out to be rather difficult, and somewhat complicated), two temples famed for their gardens. In fact, Kyoto is famed for its numerous gardens, and a significant number of them have been registered as Important Cultural Properties, National Treasures, and World Heritage Sites. Tenryu-ji is one such site, with one of the first, and oldest gardens still in existence to use ‘borrowed scenery’, quite a feat when you realise that Kyoto was almost entirely burned to the ground during the Onin Wars (1467-1477), and much of what we see today was constructed either during the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573), and the Edo Period (1603-1868). Borrowed Scenery is as aspect of Japanese garden design whereby distant landscape elements are incorporated into the design of individual gardens. At Tenryu-ji, two mountains – Arashiyama, and Kameyama – appear as part of the garden, appropriated and integrated into what is an astonishing mix of water, rocks, and vegetation.

Tenyru-ji represents a particularly fascinating aspect of Kyoto religious architecture, something that is shared throughout the majority of the sites I visited. It’s temple complex and garden was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji around 1339, with the priest Muso Kokushi, the designer of Saiho-ji’s moss garden, and commonly regarded as one of Japan’s great garden designers and religious figures was in charge of designing and creating its garden. But, the first construction on the site of Tenryu-ji dates back to the Heian period – it was a prince’s estate that served as the residence of Emperor Gosaga beginning in 1270. Although we know very little about the original villa (Heian period architecture has been all but destroyed and lost to history), there is evidence that the current Tenryu-ji site incorporated elements of the original villa’s layout, including a superb Heian-style pond garden that incorporated Chinese aspects popular at the time. It is therefore a fascinating site that offers a direct link to the historical past, and provides insights into the links between Japan’s ruling classes and religious institutions.


While there is much to see at Tenryu-ji, the principle feature of the garden is a grouping of seven rocks positioned near the shore at the rear of the pond. It is a fascinating space that is simultaneously a form of garden designed to be walked through, but also one for contemplation. Arguably the best place to enjoy the garden is from the veranda of the temples Hondo (main hall), as it offers a superb place to sit and contemplate the pond and rock arrangements, as Arashiyama and Kameyama rise up in the background, distant, yet part of the garden. Tenryu-ji is fascinating, a garden that appears to fade into the natural landscape, becoming part of the mountains behind, and the numerous trees which surround the temple grounds. The central pond is beguiling, and deeply calming, despite the number of visitors, and innumerable selfie sticks.

The rock formations appear to invoke land, islands, even mountains – steadfast and permanent in an ever changing, and constantly moving landscape, as wind blows through the trees and ripples streak across the water’s surface. The water itself further enhances, and depends the compositions, as rock formations and plants are reflected on its surface, they move, and change, yet remain still and calm. Perhaps the gardens composition is a reflection of a state of mind to aspire towards, to be simultaneously open to change, yet also remain calm and steady. The water, while at first calm in appearance, is also constantly moving, and shifting, as ripples shift across its surface, and the breeze moves the plants and trees which surround it. I appeared to have arrived in Kyoto during a transitional period, and the Ginko trees which are planted around the garden, and in particular the pond were just starting to change colour. I believe that this garden would be even more striking in the autumn when the Ginko are a deep crimson, providing a wonderful contrast with the ever green pines and everygreens.


Unfortunately, because of Tenryu-ji’s fame, and its position in the Arashiyama area, adjacent to a historical district and bridge popular with tourists, it is often so busy that one has to either arrive very early, or just before closing to truly appreciate the garden as a space for contemplation. In fact, as I sat and explored the space, while also writing my journal, people came and went, barely giving the garden and its many facets time to sink in. Indeed, such an attitude (especially amongst the Chinese and American tourists that I encountered) is something that often characterised my visits to the more popular temples. As with Itsukushima Shrine, the history and cultural aspects of these sites appears either lost, or ignored by many, and gardens that were originally designed as spaces for contemplation and meditation become little more than a photograph, and a brief tour before shooting off to the next site. In fact, much of what I might say in this, and the next post may often come across as somewhat superior, even arrogant at times – a fact that I am painfully aware of – and yet, I do believe that in their rush to visit as many ‘big’ sites as possible, the majority of tourists I encountered seemed to have missed the point of these gardens and religious sites entirely.

As with so many other large temples and tourist attractions, one gets the feeling that while they remain important to Japan, their meaning is lost on all but a few, and even many Japanese who flock to them, may not ever grasp their true meaning, wrapped up as it is in teachings, and ideas from the distant past. Almost as if there is a break in the cultural knowledge required to understand and appreciate the country’s history and traditional culture. And yet, particular aspects of tradition, thinks considered to be ‘essentially Japanese’, continue to hold immense power over the Japanese imagination, and Kyoto, as the symbolic, and spiritual capital of Japan remains an essential space of Japaneseness, or Nihonjinron, with its myriad temples, palaces, and other historic monuments. As such, Tenryu-ji plays an important role in the symbolism of Japan and its history, and while many may never fully appreciate its garden as it was intended to be, their interest in the space itself is important.


After Tenryu-ji, I had intended to visit Saiho-ji, popularly known as Kokedera (Lit. Moss Temple), unfortunately that proved rather difficult. I had read that it was particularly tricky to get into the temple grounds, but upon arriving at the area I found a board explaining that to enter the temple one must first write to the abbot stating when you want to visit, and giving at least seven days’ notice. You can only enter the temple via written permission now – until 1977 it was open to the general public, but the abbot at the time feared that the large number of visitors was irreparably damaging what is a relatively fragile garden, and so closed the temple to all but those who apply to visit. Interestingly, before even entering the garden, all visitors must either perform zazen (a form of sitting meditation), or hand copying, and chanting the sutras (shakyo), often visitors may need to do all of these before entering the garden. As such it is very much a ritual space, and while it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Kyoto (especially after late spring rain when the moss is especially verdant), it is also one of the most difficult, and certainly most expensive places to visit in Kyoto (the fee is ¥3000, whereas every other garden is around ¥400-600). An interesting place, but one that I was entirely unprepared for, and certainly somewhere you need to plan in advance to visit, possibly before you even start your travels.

Of course not all was lost, and the short, but interesting journey from Arashiyama to Saiho-ji was a pleasure in itself. I walked past a number of shrines and temples, including Matsunoo-Taisha, a shrine famous for its pure spring water, and dedicated to Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (the moon god), O Yamagushi no kami, and Nakatsu-Shima-Hime-no Mikoto. According to one story, a noble saw a turtle bathing in the spring, and so decided to build a shrine on the site. The restorative properties of the spring bring numerous sake and miso companies to the shrine so that their products will be blessed. In fact, there was one building stacked high with sake barrels, and a steady stream of people from various companies coming to the shrine, so it was clearly an important place. I also wandered through smaller back streets, seeing numerous little shrines on street corners, or where two streams joined together. And, while I was not able to visit Saiho-ji, I was at least able to visit Kegon-ji, popularly known as Suzumushi-Dera, or ‘Cricket Temple’, after the bell cricket which can be heard throughout the year on the temple grounds.


It is a small temple found at the end of a narrow back street, and approached via a series of stone steps that lead up the mountain a little way. It is a temple most famous for the guardian deity which stands just outside its main gate, and may often see people queueing up to offer up their prayers to this Buddha, rather than entering the temple to visit its gardens, or buildings. The garden itself is small, but also beautiful, and very peaceful, offering superb views out of Kyoto – although, as with a number of gardens that I visited during this trip, I believe it would look its best either during the autumn, or perhaps winter, when the trees are covered in snow, and the bamboo groves are silent. Interestingly, because the temple is so well known for the bell cricket, you can choose to either walk the garden, or pay a little extra and listen to a sermon given by one of the temples monks. It is mostly about the crickets themselves and the temple history, but is accompanied by tea, and sweats, of which the temple is famous for. And while it might not be as famous as other temples, or gardens that I visited, and the garden may not be quite as striking, there is a certain charm about the place, a peaceful spot, largely away from the crowds, with a garden space that allows for contemplation and relaxation.

In fact, despite visiting two places, it was a full, and enjoyable day, especially since walking through the outskirts of Kyoto can be as enjoyable as visiting a famous temple, and I do believe that many people try to visit too many places. The Arashiyama area is also rather enjoyable, although the main street was incredibly busy, and full of shops, some selling interesting items, others selling general tourist focussed merchandise. Saying that, the river, and paths which follow it were wonderful, and allowed you to really explore the area. But, rather curiously, the Togetsukyo Bridge which crosses the Hozu River has been constructed in such a way as to appear wooden from a distance, but is actually made of concrete. And unfortunately, because I spent so much time wandering around and exploring back streets and alleyways, crossing railway lines, and just generally seeing what sort of town Arashiyama is, I never had the opportunity to walk through the towns famous bamboo grove, although, given how busy it was at the time, I suspect that it might not have been the most peaceful, or pleasant experience. Indeed, upon looking at a map when I had returned to my Ryokan for the night, it became immediately apparent that there is far more to Arashiyama than simply Tenryu-ji. There are a number of hilltop temples that are apparently more appearling in the autumn when the leaves are hues of crimson, orange, and yellow (interestingly, a number of the temples completely lack any sakura), along with a number of mountains to climb, and numerous other little areas to explore.


But, as it was my first full day in Kyoto, I feel that I was largely overwhelmed by the enormity of the space and the number of potential places to visit. But, on a return trip I may well give myself enough time to fully explore the hills and mountains of the area, and likely get up much earlier than I did on this occasion. In fact, my experiences at Tenryu-ji made me realise the importance of getting to famous temples early, ideally for their opening time, rather than waiting until later, because then you will arrive at the same time as tour groups and pretty much everyone else. Saying that, the first few days of my stay in Kyoto weren’t necessarily as enjoyable as the later ones, although I did visit a number of really interesting, and truly remarkable shrines and temples. However, I believe that it took me three days to fully settle into Kyoto, and feel comfortable in my choices to just focus on one or two areas, rather than try to rush around. While I never truly rushed anywhere during my stay, the first couple of days were noticeable because I felt a little rushed at times, and still wasn’t entirely sure where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to visit. In fact, it wasn’t until midway through the week, when I visited a truly remarkable temple that I was able to just slow down, relax, and simply enjoy being in the city, rather than feeling the need to see every major landmark.

During this trip I had decided to visit a number of more famous temples and gardens, but was also determined to allow myself to simply wander the city, and explore. All too often we can become so utterly focussed on individual landmarks, that we forget about the city, or town around them. And during the next few days as I visited Ginkakuji, Honen-ji, and Fushimi-Inari, I also allowed myself to just wander and see what I could find, something that actually resulted in me walking all the way from Ginkakuji to Gion on one day, as I ended up exploring temples and other areas along the way. As for Ginkakuji, it was an interesting garden, one that allowed the visitor to wander and enjoy its different elements, but it was also far more formal in nature than the garden of Tenyru-ji, and felt somewhat restrictive. Saying that, as a piece of history it is also a fascinating sight – Jisho-ji, for that is the temples name, was originally a retirement villa constructed by Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1460, during the height of the Onin Wars. Indeed, Yoshimasa was the shogun at the time, and did little to stop the civil wars which ultimately lead to the almost complete destruction of Kyoto and its Heian period architecture, while he focussed exclusively on his own pleasures and pursuits. The structure that we know as Ginkaku, was originally called Kannon-den, and sought to emulate the Kinkakuji, built by Yoshimasa’s grandfather. While the site is now a zen temple, its origins as a palace during the Ashikaga shogunate, and offers a curious mixture of formal pond garden, with two mounds of sand in front of the pavilion itself representing the transition to the more austere, esoteric, and contemplative garden which became so popular during the later Muromachi Period.

The two mounds of sand, one in the shape of a cone called The Moon-Viewing Height, seems to suggest images of Mt Fuji, or the central mountain in Buddhism. Whereas the lower, horizontal mound – The Sea of Silver Sand – is so named for its appearance by moonlight, are both fascinating, but are also later editions during the Edo period, and were not part of the gardens original design. The contrast between sand and vegetation makes for a fascinating combination, one that highlights the complex nature of zen garden design. In a sweeping assumption to common to Zen, contrasts are not distinguished as opposites, but as part of the same whole. And so, while the same may stand out from the vegetation and water, it is deliberate, and part of the gardens progression from the street to a place of tranquillity and realisation. Indeed, one of my favourite aspects of Ginkakuji is the transition from the busy street outside through to the calm and tranquil space that the garden inhabits. The visitor must walk along a tree-lined approach which marks the temples entrance (no grand gate). One must then pass a large hedge, turning at right angles on a number of occasions, and although we are provided with a brief glimpse of what is to come through a bell-shaped opening in one wall, we must continue to follow the path laid out. It is a deliberate, and sophisticated transition that leads from the pressures of the outside world to the tranquillity and ultimate reality of the garden universe beyond.


Fushimi-Inari was a rather different experience from the previous temples, primarily because, rather than many Buddhist temples, that, while religious institutions, appear to be primarily visited by people wishing to see their famous gardens, Fushimi-Inari is a place for pilgrimage. There may be many tourists around the main temple at the foot of the sacred mountain, but once you start getting near the top, they soon disappear, and are replaced by Japanese who have come to visit specific shrines, and other sacred spaces that can be found all across the mountainside. Fushimi-Inari is therefore a working, active religious institution in a way that many Buddhist temples are not, although, to complicate matters, they are also active religious institutions. Fushimi-Inari arguably represents a more overt use of religious space in Japan, and at the shrine, and holy mountain, we are able to see the use of religious space in ways that may not always be immediately obvious when visiting other shrines, and especially Buddhist temples. In fact, the use of space, landscape, and an exploration of tradition were some of the main ideas that I ultimately focussed on while I wandered Kyoto. I certainly enjoyed visiting the city and its many sights, but I am also immensely interested in the use and portrayal of tradition in a cultural medium like anime. And since popular culture is a reflection of its society, walking around a city such as Kyoto and exploring its ‘traditions’ can be rather enlightening when it comes to other aspects of Japan’s culture and society.

Indeed, landscape is of upmost importance to tradition, and the relationship that a city, or building has with its surroundings may be central to its existence. Fushimi-Inari for example is absolutely focussed on Mt Fushimi – as you begin to walk up the mountain trail, through the tunnels of Torii, it is easy to imagine that you are progressing through a sacred space, a tunnel that forms a connection with the spirits that, while all around us, may be difficult to perceive. The Torii appear to deliberately obstruct ones’ vision of the surrounding mountain, save for specific places where sacred stones, smaller shrines, and views of the surrounding landscape appear, only to disappear once again as you make your way to the summit. In fact, getting to the mountain early meant that I was walking up, and down at the same time as groups, and individuals who periodically left the path to pray at specific smaller shrines, and stones. But this relationship with the landscape can be found in every Shinto shrine, or Buddhist temple, and plays an important role in the representation of Japan within anime, topics that I shall explore a little more in the next post.


One temple complex that I visited during this first week was especially fascinating – Tofuku-ji was once one of Kyoto’s major centres of Zen Buddhism, and still remains a significantly large complex of temples and sub temples. There are elements of the temple complex that remind me of Nanzen-ji, another large zen compound that I visited during the week, although in both cases I didn’t have the opportunity to explore them to their fullest, largely because at the time of visiting I was generally quite hot and tired. But, while Nanzen-ji is fascinating, especially its large Sanmon Gate, a classic example of the ‘gateless gate’ om zem Buddhism, whose purpose is more symbolic than functional, there was something about Tofuku-ji that I simply found fascinating. This was in large part due to the juxtaposition between the old and the new that I found within the complex. During its history, Tofuku-ji was once considered Kyoto’s premier religious complex, and although we can still see the engaging remnants of what was a great religious compound, the ravages of fire, and time have not always been kind. The main Sanmon gate is actually the oldest Zen gate in Japan, dating from 1425, but the temples main hall, or Hondo, dates from 1934, and there is evidence throughout the complex of concrete used to replace older wooden beams. Indeed, out of the three main gardens that one can visit at the temple, two of them were designed and built during 1938 and 1939, by garden designer Shigemori Mirei, while only one (known as Kaisan-do), still largely retains most of its original Edo period appearance, although even here a walkway was added in 1877 that divides the garden in half.


It is precisely this mixture of the old and the new that I found fascinating, and appeared to suggest that despite the modern materials, and change in architectural styles, the complex remained one of Japan’s historical past. While all of Kyoto’s major temples have been through numerous periods of destruction and rebuilding – indeed, the reason certain buildings in Kyoto and its surroundings are considered so important is often precisely because they have never been damaged by fire, or the Onin Wars – there is something very particular about the abundance of the new, with the presence of the old that makes Tofuku-ji especially interesting. It certainly was not my favourite temple, or gardens, in fact, there are elements that I find particularly forgettable, but its continued importance and history suggest a malleability of tradition within the Japanese consciousness, something that is especially evident when one views Kinkaku-ji, a topic that I will further elaborate on later. I also believe that the more modern elements would be less noticeable during the autumn – in fact, while I wasn’t especially interested in parts of Tofuku-ji, it is one temple complex that would be best during the autumn, indeed, it is famous for its spectacular autumn colours, when the trees are ablaze with deep crimsons, yellows, and oranges.

After all of this, I feel it is appropriate to end this post on what was probably my favourite garden of the whole trip, and one that, while not especially famous, left a lasting impression on me. Shoden-ji is something of a forgotten treasure (unless you happen to be involved with gardens, as its clipped azaleas are meant to be rather famous from what I have recently been told), a small temple located to the north of Kyoto, and nestled within the mountains. Indeed, the journey to get to the temple was one of the longest I had during my time in Kyoto, and it is certainly far from the main tourist trail. The temple itself is somewhat infamous; the Hojo is said to have been moved from Fushimi-jo in 1653, and was once part of a much larger temple complex, although after centuries of decline, a single building and its garden are all that remain. Furthermore, the ceiling panels of its veranda were once floor panels from Fushimi-jo, on which samurai committed mass harikiri before the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. These bloodstained panels were used for the celiing to pray for the repose of the dead, and it has been known as Chitenjo, the bloody ceiling ever since. While I had heard of this story before, my real draw was to visit a unique form of kara-sansui (dry garden), one that uses groupings of trimmed azaleas, rather than groups of rocks more common in Zen gardens.


Once I had got off the bus, I still had a good mile to walk along numerous smaller roads in what is a very quiet part of Kyoto – the temple itself can be found up a smaller road that winds its way up to the mountain, tucked away, a hidden gem. Upon arriving I had to bang a gong to get in, and soon discovered after flicking through the guest book that I was the only visitor on the day. The garden itself is like Ryoan-ji, a place to contemplate from the Hojo’s veranda – a peaceful, meditative place, one full of hidden meanings and ideas, a garden that is symbolic, abstract, and provocative. The azalea arrangements could be mountains, islands, or perhaps something more abstract in nature, like a feeling or a goal, similarly, the raked gravel may be the sea, or another aspect of the deeply confounding creation that could have multiple meanings, or none at all – in fact, the meaning could simply be based on the individual, rather than anything more specific. The garden also makes use of ‘borrowed scenery’ in its appropriation of Mt Hiei, as the holy mountains silhouette rises above the trees and wall which border the garden. In doing so, the importance of Mt Hiei is acquired by Shoden-in, they are part of the same space, the same landscape – a ritual landscape that is connected over distance and time, and one that hasn’t seen as drastic a change as that found in cities such as Tokyo.

That I remained the only visitor for the hour and a half that I spent sitting, contemplating, and writing (I arrived at 3:30, and the temple closed at 5), at the time appeared to be a blessing, especially when compared with a garden like Tenryu-ji, one that should also be contemplated in peace, rather than the madness of the tourist run. At the same time, it was sad feeling that I was the only one who had the chance to view such a wonderful space. I also began to think about the way anime also uses, or ‘borrows’ the scenery of Japan, particularly Kyoto to link its narrative with the historical past. By incorporating immediately recognisable landscapes, and architecture into the narrative, or scene, while remaining at a distance, individual anime are able to create a natural composition that simultaneously incorporate elements of the historical past, while remaining a work of contemporary fiction. Although, ‘borrowed scenery’ as a principle may only be attributed to garden design (indeed, it is a central principle to zen garden design), its themes, and philosophy certainly fit with more traditional focussed anime. Furthermore, visiting Shoden-ji helped to highlight the original forms of similar gardens, before they became famous tourist attractions, and provided me with a different perspective form which to view more famous gardens like Ryoan-ji during the next week.

I also picked up what is probably my favourite Shuincho, or temple stamp, from Shoden-ji – I had only picked up a goshuincho (lit. Little Red Stamp Book) at Fushimi-Inari, and spent the next week and a half collecting as many stamps as I could for what is probably one of my most prized possessions next to my journal. In fact, throughout my trip to Kyoto, I saw very few western tourists picking up stamps, but the queues from Japanese visitors, especially at the more popular temples, were always fairly long. And, the existence of what must be fairly rare stamps, such as the one from Shoden-ji seemed to have a positive effect on monks as they flicked through the book before creating their own little bit of artwork. Overall an interesting week that initially felt rushed, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have under different circumstances, largely because I was still thinking about the next destination, and the next journey. After settling down I began to find lots of little areas of Kyoto that were quiet, but also equally as fascinating, and as enjoyable, if not more so than the more famous shrines and gardens. In fact, I certainly enjoyed my time in Kyoto more than other cities precisely because I had given myself the time to explore, and wasn’t so focussed on visiting the major sites, or being forced to choose one or two places to see before moving on to my next stop.


About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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